Monday, July 20, 2015

Weight a minute...

Liz Kendall sounds jolly cross with the Mail on Sunday for asking how much she weighs:
In fact she looks the same weight as the Duchess – about 8st – though when I ask she slaps me down with a raucous ‘f*** off!’, adding quickly: ‘Don’t print that.’
Which is fair enough - it's nobody's business but her own how much she weighs. I'm not entirely sure that she's right to say, as she did to Buzzfeed, that this is all evidence of terrible sexism:
"I just think it’s unbelievable that in the 21st century women still get asked such very, very different questions from men. Can you imagine the Mail on Sunday asking the weight of the prime minister, George Osborne or any other leading politician?"
Let's use that example shall we? Here are some Mail stories about George Osborne:
Strikingly skinny, our Chancellor's been on a cuts regime himself: QUENTIN LETTS on lean Osborne's latest move to slim the deficit
Is George trying TOO hard to be gorgeous? Osborne delivers Budget with a natty suit and Antonio Banderas-style haircut
Chancellor austerity policy on fast food! Osborne opts for the 5:2 diet as part of an image makeover
George Osborne provides a hugely informal - and VERY revealing - portrait of life at Downing Street
That last one includes the following (slightly emetic) line:
But it is more intimate matters that we discuss first. It is impossible not to notice his dramatic weight loss. He is a real skinny malink. ‘Am I?’ he says, modestly patting his slim line waist.
I have every sympathy with Liz Kendall not wanting to talk about her weight. Unfortunately I don't think that this is just a woman thing any more...

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Running with the Fox & Hunting with the Hounds

The abiding dilemma with politics is how much is cock-up and how much is conspiracy. Let's take the fox-hunting bill as an example, first of all as a cock-up.

The Tories have a problem with their back-benchers (especially those of the red-meat persuasion). There is a residue of resentment from the way that the Labour Party forced through the fox hunting ban back in 2004, especially the none-too-subtle elements of class war that came with it. Since with his majority of 16 David Cameron is going to have to rely on his fractious back-benchers to get key legislation trough this Parliament, why not throw them a bone early? There's a problem, in that the ban is fairly totemic for the Labour Party, and there are enough Tory antis to prevent it getting through a vote of the full house, but this shouldn't be a problem because the fox-hunting bill only affects England and Wales, where the Tories have a thumping majority.  Into this stump the SNP, announcing that they will oppose the ban being relaxed and forcing the Government to pull the motion.

Results: Egg on face all round, Government looks weak and pusillanimous. SNP look like king-makers, and Labour get to keep their ban. Now, let's look at this again as a conspiracy.

The Tories have a long-term aim of instituting English Votes for English Laws, but certain back-benchers are unhappy about the means of getting there. A free vote on relaxing the fox-hunting ban was in the Tory manifesto, but the last thing David Cameron wants is endless wrangling about toffs on horseback. The SNP have used fox-hunting frequently as a perfect example of a bill which only affects England, and which they would therefore never vote on. However, it was always likely that they would be unable to resist stirring the pot by embarrassing the Government.

The result is a bill that plainly and obviously only affects England, but that the SNP go into linguistic contortions to justify voting against. At a stroke the 'self-denying convention' that the SNP have talked about in the past (partly as a reason EVEL is unnecessary) is blown forever. The need for EVEL (as far as the Tories are concerned) is clearer than ever. The back-bench Tories who have been most troublesome over EVEL are also among the most pro-hunting.

Result: SNP look duplicitous, hypocritical and a bit ridiculous. The Government has a concrete example of why EVEL is required, and its back-bench doubters have had a prize objective taken away from them because it hasn't been introduced yet.

Usually the answer to these questions is cock-up. I'm not so sure this time.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Making Poverty History

The problem with Polly Toynbee is that she gets so cross about whatever the particular issue of the day is that she doesn't notice that she's contradicting herself, or basing her argument on something flat-out untrue. She is currently spitting feathers over the redefining of poverty away from the old 60% of median income.
In doublespeak, the very meaning of the word poverty disappears when to be poor no longer means to lack money.
The problem is that this entirely undermines her argument: as it stands poverty doesn't necessarily mean that you lack money, just that you have less of it than other people. She herself recognises this later in the piece, as well as correctly identifying the obvious problem with the measure:
Cameron chooses a clever time to scorn the international poverty measure – people living at below 60% of a nation’s median income. That measure means that during recessions when the median falls, the number in poverty may fall too, without the poor being a penny better off.
Which is counter-intuitive to say the least.
A more imaginatively graphic measure comes from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, using an annual opinion poll to ask the public what they regard as minimum necessities. The public regards two pairs of shoes, a winter coat, a one-week self-catering UK holiday and a birthday present costing £50 as essentials for children: fewer people reach this decency threshold than before the recession. 
OK, that's a reasonable approach - like Adam Smith's idea about the labourer and the linen shirt:
A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.'
This is not a measure of how people's incomes compare to the median but whether they can afford what contemporary society views as an adequate way of life. That's much more helpful than a relative measure, which is a way of determining inequality, not poverty. So how does Polly characterise this?
That’s what relative poverty means – not a dry statistic, but whether people have what are seen as essentials in an ever-changing society.
Which is obviously wrong - it's an absolute measure of poverty and explicitly not a relative one. It is, in fact, much closer to what the Government are proposing. That's the problem with getting so angry when writing - you shout too loudly to hear yourself think.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

House of Lords Reform

The House of Lords has become a ridiculous and unsustainable mess. There are nearly 800 members, all but 92 of them appointed. Since there is no real mechanism for reducing numbers (short of voluntary retirement) new Governments have a choice of either increasing these numbers still further or accepting that a majority Government in the House of Commons is offset by a minority in the House of Lords.

Anomalies now abound: the Liberal Democrats have 8 MPs but 101 members of the House of Lords. UKIP won 4 million votes in the 2015 election but have only 3. The whole thing is absurd and needs reform. Luckily, I have a plan...

The big objection to an elected House of Lords is the fact that as a revising chamber it is secondary to the House of Commons, something hard to justify if the two Houses have an equal electoral mandate. However, I think there's a way around this. My plan works as follows:

The House of Lords will become an elected House, with its numbers based on the proportions each party won in the General Election. However, to recognise the historic importance of cross-benchers, their numbers will be determined by non-voters. In other words, if turnout is 70%, then 30% of the Upper House will be made up of cross-bencher MPs of no party. Each other party will therefore have a proportion of peers determined by the share of the total electorate they received.

The next point is that the 'party list' of peers will be determined not by the political parties directly, but by the Lords themselves - each party in the Lords will determine its own list by ballot (rather like the old Labour shadow cabinet elections). This provides a greater degree of independence from the party, determines who gets to sit as a cross-bencher, and reduces the democratic mandate of the Lords sufficiently not to trample over the Commons. Elections to the 'slate' could take place 6 months before the General Election (so long as fixed term Parliaments still exist).

Tony Blair's half-reforms of the Lords have only lasted as long as this because no party really wants change badly enough. The can's been kicked far enough down the road now that we may as well pick it up...

Friday, June 26, 2015

King v Burwell

Happily, I don't have a dog in the Obamacare fight. From my vantage over the Atlantic I can cheerfully observe both that the US have just about the worst possible healthcare system in the Western world, and that they'd be insane to try and replicate the NHS. I am a little bit surprised by the reasoning behind the decision in King v Burwell though.

For those among us who don't follow every twist and turn in the US healthcare debate (slackers), King v Burwell was an attempt to show that the tax credits/subsidies allowed for under the law could only apply to people in states with state-operated exchanges (i.e. where the individual US State had elected to set up an insurance exchange), and not where the exchange had been established by the federal state.

The reason this was brought was that the relevant wording of the law allowed a tax deductible for:
"the monthly premiums for ... qualified health plans offered in the individual market within a State which cover the taxpayer... and which were enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State"
Plaintiffs not unreasonably held that a law saying that you could get a tax break by enrolling in exchanges established by the State did not mean that you could get a tax break by enrolling in exchanges that wasn't established by the State.

The practical implications of this case were fairly serious - it would basically have punctured the Affordable Care Act by making it massively more expensive to get insurance in those States where there were no State-established exchanges. The obvious solution (amend the damn thing and get it re-passed) was not available, because the ACA would no longer have a majority in Congress. So, what's the Court to do? Politically, effectively overturning the most important single piece of legislation passed in the last decade, not on the grounds of constitutionality, but on the grounds of basic interpretation of a technicality would be a really very big call. On the other hand, the actual wording of the actual statute is really abundantly clear. What to do?
Congress passed the Affordable Care Act to improve health insurance markets, not to destroy them. If at all possible, we must interpret the Act in a way that is consistent with the former, and avoids the latter.
Teleological interpretation, that's what. "The object of all interpretation lies in the true intention of the lawmakers." Obama's Congress clearly didn't mean to fuck up the legislation, therefore they couldn't have done it. There are those who think that this method of statutory interpretation is a good thing - some of them are even American:
In today’s King v. Burwell, the Court said that in close cases, make the law work the way Congress obviously intended it. That’s a very good thing.
I have to admit that I thoroughly disagree. What's important is not what Congress intended, whether that's obvious or not. What's important is what Congress actually said. The only proper guide we have is the words of the statute. What do the words mean? This is something that courts really really ought to determine on the basis of the words in front of them and nothing else.

Once you get into the purposive, teleological route of what people meant to say, you end up with the situation of the Court having to make law, rather than simply interpret it. That's the way the ECJ works, and is the key reason that European law is such a clusterfuck - a combination of teleological interpretation and the fact the ECJ is not bound by its own previous decisions means that nobody has the faintest idea what decision they'll make on any given issue - there's no guidance other than the Judges' consciences.

The Supreme Court has shied away from giving words their ordinary meaning. As Scalia said, in a very Scalia dissent:
The Court holds that when the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says “Exchange established by the State” it means “Exchange established by the State or the Federal Government.” That is of course quite absurd, and the Court’s 21 pages of explanation make it no less so.
That they have done in a 'good cause' (and I think that this is a good cause) doesn't make it any better - breaking the rules for a good reason makes it much easier to break them for a bad reason.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Waterloo

There's something a little odd about a progressive veneration for Napoleon - the man who dispersed protesters in Paris by firing artillery into them, who engineered a military coup to take over the dying Republic, who re-instated slavery in the French Empire, and who crowned himself as Emperor of France while at the same time invading most of Europe, causing the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children. You end up with the impression that to some it doesn't matter how blood-stained the figure is, so long as he opposed England.

Martin Kettle, who is usually more sensible than this, provides a classic of its type here, arguing that the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo represented "a huge setback for the cause of democracy and equality." As a quick aside here, the extremely imperfect democracy in Britain in 1815, was considerably freer and more democratic than either Revolutionary or Imperial France. At the most basic level, compare and contrast the two principal newspapers of each state, The Times  and Le Moniteur. The Times was independent and free to write more or less what it liked. Le Moniteur was directly controlled by the French state and consisted of little more than propaganda.

The idea that Napoleon represented anything other than French supremacism rests on very thin ground. Take Kettle's report of Napoleon, post defeat in St Helena, musing on what he would have done to England:
“I would have hastened over my flotilla with two hundred thousand men, landed as near Chatham as possible and proceeded direct to London, where I calculated to arrive in four days from the time of my landing. I would have proclaimed a republic and the abolition of the nobility and the House of Peers, the distribution of the property of such of the latter as opposed me amongst my partisans, liberty, equality and the sovereignty of the people.”
Stirring stuff, if the thought of tumbrils in Parliament Square doesn't put you off a bit. Kettle qualifies his support for this by saying "If that was the real Napoleonic deal for Britain – and of course no one can say for sure whether it would have been – then what’s not to like." But Napoleon's commitment to Republican ideals is not really up for debate. He has a historical record which we can test.

Let's start at the beginning: France. Napoleon found an imperfect Republic, and transformed it into an Empire, with himself as its Imperial Majesty. He found Italy a patchwork of City state Republics, some more democratic and some less, and turned it into the Kingdom of Italy (ruled by his step-son) and the Kingdom of Naples (ruled by first his brother Joseph, and later his sister Caroline). The Netherlands were a genuine Republic, with directly elected leaders, when Napoleon invaded and occupied them. He turned them into the Kingdom of Holland (ruled by his brother Louis) and later just annexed them to France. After war with Prussia, Napoleon was ceded a hotch-potch of principalities, electorates and turned it into the Kingdom of Westphalia (ruled by his brother Jerome). Perhaps a closer parallel to England would be Spain, where Napoleon invaded a monarchy and overthrew it to create... the Kingdom of Spain (ruled by his brother Joseph, called over from Naples).

The quicker among you may be noticing a pattern here, and it's not one of democracy, liberty and progress.

Napoleon is good early evidence of the tendency on the left to grab any stick with which to beat their own country, regardless of how shitty it is.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

#Otherskin

I'm not entirely sure what the opposite of a Hot Take is, but whatever it is, this post would probably qualify. Because I've got myself thoroughly confused over the public reaction to two recent stories.

The first one consists of someone who made the choice to reject one of their key birth characteristics and adopt a different one, using cosmetic treatments to change their appearance and present an entirely new face to the world.

And so does the other one.

On Caitlyn Jenner, I'm already a bit conflicted. I'm sympathetic to transgender people, not least because Jan Morris is so consummately brilliant, while at the same time wondering why the psychiatric response to a man thinking that he's Napoleon is therapy and medication, while the psychiatric response to a man thinking that he's a woman is hormones and surgery. Ultimately, of course, this all falls under the overarching category of 'someone else's problem', and if people really feel that they belong in a different category then good luck to them. I'm not sure that her rather peculiar beatification is called for, but that's a quibble.

But then Rachel Dolezal. One of the things that I was told repeatedly when studying sociology and gender at university was that race and gender are both essentially cultural constructs - that is, that neither are about inherent biological or genetic categorisation, but are formed of a network of roles and ideas that are artificially created by society as a whole. Since that is the case, there can be no problem with Caitlyn Jenner adopting a 'female' identity, because there's nothing biological about femininity.

On the other hand, even though race is also a cultural construct with no biological or genetic basis, there is a massive problem with Rachel Dolezal adopting a 'black' identity, because... Well, why? Mic has an answer:
So why don't we just accept Dolezal as black? Because she's not. So what's the difference between identifying as black and identifying as a woman? It's pretty clear: Dolezal has lied. She's spent the last decade going out of her way to falsely represent herself as black. On the flip side, transgender people like Caitlyn Jenner are not lying. If anything, their decision to come out is the ultimate declaration of honesty, of being upfront with who they are. 
Which is all a bit circular: a man wanting to be a woman is being honest, and that's fine. A white person wanting to be a black person is lying and that's not fine. This is all very well as a description of your point of view, but doesn't really tell us anything about why. The Advocate was blunter:
But then there came the comments of, “If Caitlyn Jenner can choose be transgender, then why can’t Dolezal choose to be transracial?” Okay, now I had an opinion. Let me sum that opinion up as simply as possible: these people are idiots. Seriously, that opinion is so backwards, ignorant, and clueless, it serves as a shining example of why we don’t have moon bases and fully functional sexbots yet. These people's statements are asinine because being trans is not a choice any more than being gay or black is. You are or you aren’t. 
But again, the point here is that Rachel Dolezal can't choose to be black (which, remember, is a cultural construct and not based on genetic or biological characteristics). Why not? Because you're an idiot, is why. Slate at least has a proper go at answering this:
The explanation commonly given is that Dolezal misrepresented her actual identity, while Jenner and other trans women are being true to theirs. This leaves a big question unanswered, though: If race and gender are both social constructs, and if both have been built around observable biological traits, then what is the crucial difference that makes a felt gender identity a true one, but a felt racial identity fraudulent? The short answer is that most trans people and their allies suspect that transgender people are born that way.
Which seems to leave us with the conclusion that while femininity is not a genetic or biological phenomenon, trans-ness is. All in all, the best part of all this nonsense was that it reminded me that I haven't read Jan Morris for too long.